The popularity of Jordan Peterson for his intended audience is an interesting phenomenon.
I was provoked today by yet another sneering article, this one from Stuart Schneiderman, about Peterson's use of Jungian archetypes. Schneiderman, who is rarely above a middle-brow level of blogger, enjoys opportunities to look down on popular culture from higher-status heights. His article is an example of a typical elite slur:
- Take a concept
- Point out that the person using it is not perfect
- Claim that the concept is being applied well beyond its sanctioned mandate
- Take the “all the best minds disagree” approach to wipe it away.
- Claim superiority to all the players
Peterson has written books (both academic and popular), speaks publicly, and has upset the wokerei with his objection to modifying pronouns or pronouncements for their comfort, but his main popularity is based on a series of lectures he gives to his university students. I recommend that you look at a few of them to understand what he tells them. His primary audience is young men who don't understand why their lives are a mess, and he gives them both insight and advice for how to change that.
The “Jordan Peterson is a horrible person and, besides, his followers are all rubes” claim that Schneiderman and other elites promulgate is a distasteful manifestation of our time, where people who claim to be intellectuals or thought leaders are far more interested in status among themselves. Socially, the claim is that the audience is dumb enough to be fooled by unsanctioned teachers [and we're not that dumb], and intellectually, the claim is that the particular teaching includes a model that is not rational or moral (or woke), namely Jungian archetypes and traditional modes of behavior [and we can't talk about or believe such things].
Objections to a point of view on these grounds is both very bizarre and alas all too typical these days.
Humans are story-telling animals. All of our perceptions are based upon narratives that are shortcuts to understanding reality, in order to better survive it. We tell ourselves stories all the time, and stories are enactments of characters. Jung's insight was to explain these characters as universal human archetypes.
How could it be otherwise? We are the descendants of people who, when they saw something move in the bush ahead of them, ran away because they feared the possible tiger, not the people who paused to construct a rational analysis of the scene (and were sometimes mistaken). Speed and pre-judgments matter to us. Rational analysis is an afterthought for when we are safe, not when we are in danger.
Our first reaction to any sort of social scene is to immediately assign acquaintances to internal representations of what we know about them, and strangers to various archetypes as placeholders. It is those stand-ins for real people that we are constantly manipulating in our heads as we navigate social situations.
The point of Jungian archetypes is not that they are immutable moral principles subject to rational analysis and debate, but that they are common, perhaps universal, shortcuts to the sorts of narratives embedded in our toolset. Objecting to the concept or particular flavor of archetypes from a rational perspective is like objecting to the fragility of our foot and ankle bones from the perspective of an engineer working from newly designed structures, rather than from the perspective of a “good enough design evolved from pre-existing materials”.
Jung's usage of an insight he devoted himself to is no doubt fraught with human behavior perils on an ad hominem basis, but the insight itself is a fruitful way of looking at the way humans think using their evolutionarily-descended toolkit. After all, we can perhaps improve on morality and rationality through intent, but we can only bring to it the tools we already have. It's a good thing for Peterson to bring those tools to light so that his students can better understand why they have the psychological filters/failings they have, and to suggest functional ways of dealing with them.
Jordan Peterson himself is a man like any other and has a man's personal failings, but ad hominem arguments about him are no more relevant than they are about Carl Jung. Certainly Peterson is incontrovertibly effective for his intended audience. Like many applied remedies, it might be more fruitful to analyze why he is effective, than to deny that he could be, in principle.
If Schneiderman and others think humans can embrace rationality and ignore the older and more fundamental toolset, then they probably believe that humans can change their behavior at will. We can all be thin, and fit, and attentive, etc., just by knowing what the rational behaviors should be (for historically contingent values of “should”). Since that demonstrably doesn't work any better for adults than children, what makes them think this is how humans can actually function?
Footnote: It's not just humans who are story-telling animals. We may model “what-if” plotlines internally all the time, but it's easy to see the same thing happening with other animals such as our pets as they scheme to steal food from each other or evaluate what might happen if they misbehave. The better an animal can evaluate situations before acting, the more likely it will survive to breed.